COVID-19: A Community in Crisis

Response Article To "Coronavirus: The Charedi Response"

Rabbi Moshe Farkash Avrech, disciple of Rabbi Moshe Shapira zt"l

The callousness of our community's response to the safety directives of the health ministry exposes a failing in our handling the threats of modenity. Of all groups, we ought to be at the forefront of the campaign for public health and safety, yet in reality we bring up the rear. Moreover, although they have become manifestly clear, we cannot bring ourselves to acknowledge our shortcomings. Something needs to be mended.

Nissan 5780; April 2020

It is Tuesday March 24, 2020 (28 Adar 5780). As I write, the novel coronavirus continues to rage throughout the globe. It is still too early to know the final toll will be, and its ultimate impacts can scarcely be imagined. For the time being, we are hunkered down in our homes, hiding from this invisible enemy. Disturbingly, despite our inability to see into a future post-COVID-19, the virus’s spread across the world was no surprise: epidemiological forecasts correctly predicted the disease’s transmission and spread.

Clearly, the costs of our own attitude are high, and I fear that they will become far higher with time. But rather than ignore our failed strategy (if strategy it can be called), tragedy must force us to think hard about our social function and how to improve it, for now and for the future

In the present article, I will explore our own community’s attitude—that of Charedi society in Israel—to the virus, while seeking to identify critical lessons we must take from it. Some of them are relevant immediately; others will become relevant once the air begins clears. Clearly, the costs of our own attitude are high, and I fear that they will become far higher with time. But rather than ignore our failed strategy (if strategy it can be called), tragedy must force us to think hard about our social function and how to improve it, for now and for the future.

Modern science and modernity in general have posed complex challenges for the Charedi community. A much longer essay than the current piece would be needed to fully survey our community’s successes and failures in meeting these challenges. Indeed, this tension has been at the center of our collective experience for centuries and the battle is far from over. Yet, Charedi society’s conduct during the coronavirus crisis of recent weeks is worthy of its own treatment. A rapid sequence of events, guidelines, and reactions have proven to be a perfect microcosm of our community’s relationship with modernity, a sort of “promotional trailer” collapsing processes that typically take decades or longer to unfold into a few short weeks.

My comments below are highly critical, harsh, and sweeping. Under normal circumstances, it would not be appropriate to find fault so explicitly without suggesting reasonable and well-thought-out solutions. Nevertheless, what would otherwise be correctly dismissed as antagonistic mudslinging is presently a matter of life and death. I am not looking to make the community, my community and the one I choose to raise my children in, look bad. At the same time, flaws that are tolerable under normal conditions have proven to be catastrophic in the present crisis. And yes, it is precisely at such moments that we must identify critical pressure points and learn the difficult lessons.

***

On Wednesday, March 11 (Shushan Purim), a few short days after the coronavirus began travelling across the globe in earnest, the Prime Minister of Israel announced a ban on all gatherings of more than 100 people. Among Israeli’s Charedi public, this instruction was largely ignored. Shuls and yeshivas continued with their normal schedules and weddings were held as planned. In the case of the latter, where some level of government enforcement was expected, the celebrations were taken “underground” with defiant, partisan spirit.

Among Israeli’s Charedi public, this instruction was largely ignored. Shuls and yeshivas continued with their normal schedules and weddings were held as planned.

I attended such a wedding myself the next day, Thursday, March 12, at which hundreds of well-wishers crowded into narrow hallways, shook hands with one another, and danced with the baalei simcha. There was also a nod to the safety rules—a young man assigned to ensure that no more than the permissible number of people would enter the hall. His utter ineffectiveness suggested that his true role was more likely to provide a fig leaf’s worth of cover should the police pay a visit. Indeed, as I made my escape, officers arrived to investigate, only to be teased and tormented by participants—young and old I might add—who seemed intent on driving away the “evil Zionists,” as if their sole purpose was to prevent Charedi Jews from learning Torah and celebrating weddings.

Shabbos schedules that week, Parshas Ki Tissa, were largely unchanged from any other week. Shuls conducted regular services, each Rebbe led his crowded tisch, and for the most part life continued apace in the Charedi street. On Motzaei Shabbos, the Israeli government issued a new directive to close down the public-school system and to further restrict public gatherings to no more than twenty people, who must preserve six feet distance from each other. Initially, almost all the Charedi educational networks ignored the instructions, continuing regular activities under the banner that “Torah protects and preserves.” Absurdly, several published statements calling for adherence to the public health guidelines were accompanied by conduct on the ground that made doing so all but impossible.

Announcing that they would no longer tolerate such abuses, the authorities began making their rounds to shut down the Charedi schools. Eventually, towards the end of that week, most schools could no longer put on a fight and begrudgingly closed their doors. Likewise, wedding celebrations were cancelled, though not because of widespread acquiescence to the guidelines. Wedding halls were simply shuttered. Instead, many opted to move the weddings to informal settings: cramped parking lots and alleyways. Where large gatherings were arranged, attendees were urged to keep the event secret. A yahrtzeit tisch was documented with hundreds of Chassidim in attendance, as were many other public gatherings at which no social distancing guidelines were observed. To be clear, such events were not limited to Israel; similar attitudes and activities prevailed in Charedi communities around the world. In the United States, this carelessness has already brought about catastrophic consequences.

Yated Ne’eman and various other Charedi media published warnings about the community’s failures to adhere to guidelines, while carefully pointing out that such recklessness was limited to a small number of individuals. Empirical observation however left no doubt that this was not the case: many thousands continued to frequent Shuls across the world. Public criticism of the Charedi community’s intransigence was voiced in a variety of media outlets, in Israel and abroad.

Further restrictions were promulgated later in the week, in advance of Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei. Even so, our community adopted these halfheartedly

Further restrictions were promulgated later in the week, in advance of Shabbos Parshas Vayakhel-Pekudei. Even so, our community adopted these halfheartedly, though Yated Ne’eman proudly declared that “the Charedi public sanctified the Name of Heaven by complete adherence to safety guidelines.” Sadly, even as I write these lines, reports of well-attended events continue to circulate. They are far fewer, yet they continue to flow in.

I believe that the Charedi public’s irresponsible conduct in the face of the COVID-19 crisis reflects our community’s ultimate failure to properly contend with modernity itself. I will cite several specific examples from recent events that I believe characterize our society’s struggles with modernity.

 

Isolationism and Dismissal of The Outside World

“Torah protects and preserves!” Surely, while no believing Jew disputes the transformative power of Torah, virtually nobody who answers to that description would negate the importance of human life and the need for safety precautions to protect it. No sane, God-fearing Jew insists that an ill person study Torah for a few extra hours instead of visiting a doctor. Indeed, Torah protects, yet we carry the responsibility for following through on the necessary steps to preserving our health.

Instructions or guidance to close schools and places of worship are developed in consultation with and relying upon the expert opinions of public health officials responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the entire public. We must follow these instructions just as we would any other medical directive. And while it is absurd to suggest that present guidance should be any different, we indeed find our community treating it—at least until the last couple of days—very differently.

For example, on Sunday, March 15, one Rabbi promised that “anyone who continues to study and pray in shul will not be harmed.” Who dares contest such a promise? Unfortunately, reporting suggests that a significant proportion of those in Israel positively diagnosed with COVID-19 were exposed to the virus in a Shul or Yeshiva.

Our present situation has highlighted a bizarre reality. If an individual suffering from pneumonia were to consult his Rabbi and ask whether to go to a doctor or continue learning, the unambiguous ruling would be to set everything aside and seek medical help. On the macro level however, things are somehow different, and the obligation to take pragmatic steps to look after the public’s health and wellbeing gives way to a hazy denial of empirical reality and a rejection of human agency. Entirely absent is any sense of need for a coherent public response. On the contrary, an implicit position suggests that if we circle the spiritual wagons enough we can successfully fend off a deadly reality.

Our present situation has highlighted a bizarre reality. If an individual suffering from pneumonia were to consult his Rabbi and ask whether to go to a doctor or continue learning, the unambiguous ruling would be to set everything aside and seek medical help. On the macro level however, things are somehow different

Such policies are common in the community’s spiritual and cultural battles, albeit with mixed success. At least they present a relatively coherent position: Western culture is a negative influence, and we must rally around the Torah and its values if we are to survive. Serious problems develop when this approach becomes the lens through which every scientific fact and world event are analyzed—or, more commonly, simply ignored. Indeed, have we learned nothing from the Holocaust and the many who assuredly insisted that such a calamity will never happen?

 

We Are Special!

A misguided sense of “otherness” and invincibility, on the individual and communal levels, is an unfortunate consequence of these attitudes. If our Torah holds up the world, then surely we must be different. If “they” want to close their schools and cancel social events, so be it—this has no bearing on our lives and activities. On the tips of our tongues we are always ready with our Sages’ statement, congratulatory and critical at once, that “they run after meaninglessness and we run to words of Torah.” While certainly true in some contexts, it has absolutely nothing to do with the present crisis. And, if we are drawing upon isolated Talmudic statements, we may as well be reminded that “once permission has been granted to the destructive forces (mashchis), it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked.”

An entire economy is at a standstill, people are losing their livelihood all over the world, markets are collapsing and one can barely book an international flight, but observant Jews must go to a barber for their haircuts!

No, we stubbornly insist: we are different. We will not “surrender” and close Yeshivas and Shuls, or even men’s mikva’os. Arguing that observant Jews need to get haircuts before Pesach, a Charedi Knesset member advocated for the exclusion of barber shops from the list of Israeli businesses required to curtail their operations under social distancing guidelines. Stop and think about this for a moment. An entire economy is at a standstill, people are losing their livelihood all over the world, markets are collapsing and one can barely book an international flight, but observant Jews must go to a barber for their haircuts!

A Rabbi in Europe unabashedly went so far as to write to his community that, “in a special meeting with government officials, we tried to postpone the restrictions until after Shabbos. We argued that we need to prepare, on account of the special guests scheduled to visit with us this week and because several baalei simcha were already planning kiddushim. Nevertheless, they insisted on making no exceptions, and government rulings must be followed as determined.”

Confronted with urgent danger to human life, a Rabbi is complaining about the “cruelty of authorities” who are cancelling a kiddush. Thousands upon thousands of local events were cancelled, but we should be different because this week is Parashas Parah. Of course, as matters deteriorated, the said Rabbi changed his tune and encouraged full compliance with the guidelines.

Unfortunately, not only does such conduct bring about unnecessary hatred from the outside, but it is symptomatic of a dangerously sectarian attitude that has taken hold in our community. As a minority, we must indeed occasionally fight for our observance and Torah values; yet there is a world out there of which we a part, whether we like it or not. Human lives are the price we ultimately pay when we deny the existence of a world beyond.

 

Thinking Small

This past Friday, I reached out to a Rabbi in my neighborhood and objected to the local Shul’s plans to proceed with regularly scheduled services on Shabbos. To his response that we are not yet faced with a plague—nobody had as died yet of that time—I responded that by the time someone does die it will be too late. Indeed, while the virus had spread everywhere as experts predicted it would, our community only began paying attention to the precautions in earnest as some of our own began to lose their lives.

Advance planning to confront challenges on the horizon has never been a strength of the Charedi community. Commenting on Agudas Yisrael’s officially stated purpose to “address issues that arise daily to affect the lives of the Jewish people,” R’ Yitzchak Breuer noted that rather than make long-term plans to build a better future, they would forever be managing crises. Such failure is manifest, for example, in an area unrelated to our immediate subject. Economists, and anyone with common sense, recognize the looming collapse of a community in which too many children do not receive a basic general studies education. Yet, anyone who dares raise the issue publicly is decried in the Charedi press as an enemy of Charedi Jewry. Apparently, we would rather address the issue when it becomes an emergency than go through the trouble of thinking ahead and engaging in the multi-year work necessary to solve the problem.

Advance planning to confront challenges on the horizon has never been a strength of the Charedi community. Commenting on Agudas Yisrael’s officially stated purpose to “address issues that arise daily to affect the lives of the Jewish people,” R’ Yitzchak Breuer noted that rather than make long-term plans to build a better future, they would forever be managing crises

In the end, the community is inevitably forced to sober up and face reality. Given the velocity of recent events, the unavoidable misery wrought by COVID-19 has drastically sped up our sobriety. Sadly, not soon enough to save precious lives.

We’ve been down this road before. An early target of the 19th century Maskilim was the traditional cheder, the Talmud Torah of yesteryear. They accused the institution of cruelty and abuses towards students and pointed to its generally miserable physical conditions. Many of these Maskilim claimed that it was their own early experiences in the cheder that drove them away from Torah observance. Naturally, given the tense environment of those days, any suggestion that the humble room housing the cheder should have windows was dismissed as a hateful attack on Torah Judaism. A century has passed and those same Maskilim would be pleased to note that virtually everything they wished to change in the cheder has come to pass (though today, they would have a new set of demands). And while only a few short years ago many would have defended the practice of hitting young students as a feature of our community’s superior educational outcomes, today’s educators will hasten to tell us about our storied mesorah of educating with love and compassion, and of how awful it would be to physically strike a child.

Resistant instincts have developed over many generations that need to contend with decrees that were indeed designed to target us and harm our spiritual lives. All the same, reflexively drawing down all our defense mechanisms blinds us to the possibility that perhaps we need to take heed of what we’re being warned about

Our knee-jerk reaction to government directives in the present crisis are somewhat understandable. We do not want to be told when we may or may not open a Shul. Resistant instincts have developed over many generations that need to contend with decrees that were indeed designed to target us and harm our spiritual lives. All the same, reflexively drawing down all our defense mechanisms blinds us to the possibility that perhaps we need to take heed of what we’re being warned about.

 

Holy War

Even when community institutions finally began to heed warnings and adopting precautions, they did so most tentatively, sending a mixed signal to the public. Yated Ne’eman, the central mouthpiece of the non-Chassidic Charedi establishment published on March 16 a letter emphasizing the importance of Talmud Torah, followed by a call to fastidiously attend to the schools’ hygienic conditions and to ensure students would not be too closely congregated. Obviously, it is impossible to run a school while preserving social distancing. Children run around, play together, and ride the bus to and from school. How are our large, crowded schools expected to conduct classes in which students are kept six feet away from each other? Thus, the message all along was ambivalent, and remained so until the authorities took direct action to shut down offending institutions.

Obviously, it is impossible to run a school while preserving social distancing. Children run around, play together, and ride the bus to and from school. How are our large, crowded schools expected to conduct classes in which students are kept six feet away from each other?

On Friday, March 20, a letter circulated in which several leading Rabbis in Bnei Brak called the public to take precautions after “consulting with expert doctors,” and instructed Shuls to “conduct many separate minyanim and scatter them across the various rooms.” Instructions promulgated by the health ministry and its official were insufficient; we needed to have our own independent “expert” opinion. As for implementation, the impracticality of conducting many minyanim while keep every person six feet apart from anyone else is manifestly obvious, to say nothing of it being downright impossible to lein under such conditions. And while it was clear to all that Yeshivas could not function while imposing social distancing safety measures, Rabbis continued their call yeshivas to “adhere to the guidelines and keep students in small groups.”

In the letter mentioned above, our European Rabbi concluded that he would not be attending Shul that Shabbos, but rather would lead a small minyan in his house. He failed to rule that his followers all stay home, and, sure enough, they did not. His implicit message to them was that as a public figure he could not himself go to Shul once the authorities has insisted they close, but that others may do as they wish. And so they did.

Under such conditions, how is it defensible to leave it up to each and every individual Shul and Yeshiva to enforce proper safety? Halacha is replete with rulings that exist simply because of the notion that allowing individual guidance for every situation is not a functional public policy. Is it not clear that the mere possibility of danger to a single life would be grounds for shutting down every Shul?

As disease later raged through the community, the same Rabbi later made strong public statements against such neglect of safety precautions. On Thursday, March 26, Yated Ne’eman finally published several letters calling for strict compliance with official guidelines and asserting that failing to do so constitutes a violation of “Do not stand by while your brother’s blood is being spilled.” To account for their change in tone, the Rabbis explained that the “facts on the ground have changed.” With all due respect, nothing has changed. The virus and its toll have progressed exactly as forecasted; they were the ones who were not courageous enough to speak clearly at the right time.

Such weak and confusing messaging, especially when directed at youngsters, reflects a terrible disregard for the immediacy of the danger to human life. We all know full well that when they desire it, Rabbinic letters can be extremely forthright

Various letters, published by other leaders, reference the government “decrees” to shut down Yeshivas and mikvaos. Such weak and confusing messaging, especially when directed at youngsters, reflects a terrible disregard for the immediacy of the danger to human life. We all know full well that when they desire it, Rabbinic letters can be extremely forthright, decrying in the harshest possible terms any semblance of this or another impropriety. For all the reasons mentioned above, this was not the reaction in this case. There were indeed some Rabbis whose directives were straightforward in calling for complete adherence to all relevant guidelines, yet their voice was not dominant.

 

Lessons Not Learned

Thus far, I have focused my comments on the community’s failures in dealing with the present crisis. These are symptomatic of our overdeveloped defense mechanisms, instincts that evolved over millennia of persecution. But while we might be inclined to excuse errors caused by reflexive communal muscle memory, it is far more difficult to defend our refusal to engage in public introspection and learn some lessons.

Our priorities need to be straightened out. If, despite the dire warnings of all global authorities and public health experts, the Charedi public remained indifferent and flaunted directives, we must urgently address such devastating callousness

Indeed, rather than acknowledge our painful failure to properly handle this crisis, we have indulged in the Charedi dialect of double-speak. Various public declarations paid lip service to following the health ministry’s instructions, while it was business as usual on the ground. When these failings were correctly pointed out, we retreated to the familiar position that the hateful critics are just trying to hurt the community.

Our priorities need to be straightened out. If, despite the dire warnings of all global authorities and public health experts, the Charedi public remained indifferent and flaunted directives, we must urgently address such devastating callousness. We need to insist that each individual do his utmost to protect both himself and others. Why did it take Yated Ne’eman, an institution that enjoys broad recognition as the establishment non-Chassidic Charedi outlet, until March 26 to finally take the unambiguous stance that failure to follow government directives constitutes a violation of Torah law?

Rather than pause to acknowledge any error in the public response to the crisis, the Charedi media has pivoted to apologetics, vehemently defending the community against deserved criticism. Sadly, now that the virus has spread and begun claiming victims among us, we are, for the most part, finally taking the precautions seriously. On cue, Charedi newspapers are now highlighting the community’s admirable conduct and strict adherence to the guidelines, calling it a “sanctification of God’s name.” No less. The mayor of a Charedi city in Israel went so far as to argue that it is “evil to even think that the Charedi community is lax in its compliance.” This mayor would rather call out the “evil” of critics than learn any important lessons from the tragedy.

Legitimate, even well intended critique is dismissed as antagonistic and malicious polemic. Thoroughly lacking is any willingness to engage in a conversation about or correct our failure to properly protect and preserve human life or our shameful desecration of God’s name

Unfortunately, there is nothing new in these reactions. We are all too familiar with this collective dissonance when it comes to any criticism of the Charedi community. Legitimate, even well intended critique is dismissed as antagonistic and malicious polemic. Thoroughly lacking is any willingness to engage in a conversation about or correct our failure to properly protect and preserve human life or our shameful desecration of God’s name.

***

Events in the present COVID-19 crisis have unfolded, in true 21st century fashion, at incredible speed. Processes that would otherwise have spread across decades or even centuries have played out before our eyes, bringing to light the most extreme elements—and weaknesses—of our community. While these weaknesses may not seem acute under normal circumstances, our present crisis highlights how dangerous they can be.

Let us call attention to our community’s response to the virus and acknowledge that which redress, rather than fall back on slogans and instinctive defensiveness. Let us use these lessons to further our capacity to confront those challenges that still lie ahead of us.

3 thoughts on “COVID-19: A Community in Crisis

  • Excellent Musar. Bear in mind that Haredi communities are far from the only ones not to heed the warnings of public health experts—just like everyone else in this way.

  • Sadly the charedi community IMHO does not see other people as people like themselves only different.

    The double speak and techniques adopted by some of the leadership as well as smugness would do credit to the Communist party. Like that organisation they cannot see themselves as doing any wrong Tragically the penalty is often born by the ordinary ba’al habos who puts his faith and trust in its leaders.

  • “I attended such a wedding myself the next day, Thursday, March 12…”
    Were you also unaware or dismissive of the health risks?

    “…they were the ones who were not courageous enough to speak clearly at the right time.”
    This looks like a new instance of leaders fearing the negative response (or non-response) of followers, or even of fellow leaders.

    “Why did it take Yated Ne’eman…until March 26 to finally take the unambiguous stance that failure to follow government directives constitutes a violation of Torah law?”
    Wouldn’t you expect people educated their whole lives in Torah law to need no such wake-up call from a news outlet? Disparities between Torah law and what Jews actually do are unhealthy in themselves.

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